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Yes I did.
I let a lot of things go when the pandemic shut-down kicked in. My hair grew out; I ceased emailing and texting with a lot of good and great people; since I was able to get free food from a city program, I took advantage of it even though I ate pretty much the same boring thing every day. Sometimes, I even forgot to brush my teeth.
I was used to going out to different restaurants daily — some great or not so much. I’d be at receptions after special screenings and Q&As with various actors and directors. Suddenly all that was gone. I often would swing into a hotel lobby for the Wi-Fi and a chance to relax and write or meet with various people.
So it’s been quite a Spring and Summer. Without films and music, I needed distraction. When my friend lent me two DVD sets of sci-fi TV series, I was provided with the perfect alternative. By binge-watching them, the on-going escapism helped me survive the pandemic pause. And it’s a perfect thing to do for the holiday weekend.
First I jumped into “Babylon 5” — with its five-season arc based on a floating city in space. Some said it was like “Star Trek -Deep Space Nine” maybe better, maybe worse.
Unusual for the era in which it was released, “Babylon 5” was like a “novel for television” with a defined beginning, middle, and end. ”Unfolding over its five 22-episode seasons, the Babylon 5 space station — built in the aftermath of inter-species wars — served as a neutral focal point for galactic diplomacy and trade. In essence, each episode was like a chapter with the human military staff and alien diplomats stationed there caught up in various political machinations, shifting alliances and layers of betrayal (not unlike today’s political intrigues). Each season contained plot elements which permanently changed the series’ universe.
With most story-lines centered around a core of about a dozen species, Babylon 5’s embroilment in a millennia-long cyclical conflict between ancient, powerful races and their aftermath, offered fabulous escapism. Episodes focused on the effect of wider events on various characters, addressing themes of personal change, loss, subjugation, corruption, defiance, and redemption.
And then there’s “Stargate SG-1.”
In this decade-long series, Colonel Jack O’Neill, Major Samantha Carter, Dr. Daniel Jackson, Teal’C and General George Hammond defeat the myth-making Goa’uld and save Earth time and again by traveling to countless worlds through a series of wormholes generated by the Stargates. As the series evolved from the discovery and implementation of Earth’s Stargates, audiences learn of the complex millennia-long dynamic between the Ancients, the Asgard and the Goa’uld, and how they all fit into humanity’s evolution. The first team’s four main characters in “SG-1” explore the galaxy and more through the vast hyperspace network and evolve into richly developed personalities as they battle various interplanetary threats.
The series lasted 10 years and went through a few TV movies as well. It engendered spin-offs and built up quite a viable universe with a few references and nods to “Star Trek,” “Farscape” and other sci-fi franchises. During the days in which I was sucked into the DVDs, the series became quite a touchstone for me. I would get up and do what I had to do as the anticipation of sitting down and viewing the next episode built up in me.
What was more important to me in all this was the notion that such a binge could save minds and allow for some kind of repair. It doesn’t matter so much what the particular sci-fi series is being viewed or how they build on ideas which both encompass and parallel current political dynamics, but the experience itself.
Being pulled out of present-day traumas and toil offered a salve for pandemic PTSD. Getting immersed in the problems of Babylon 5 or the trials and tribulations of the SG-1 team, allowed me to get a breather.
While I’ve been through TV marathons such as a MoMA-sponsored weekend-long engagement with “Twin Peaks: The Return” (which I wholeheartedly recommend if only for its general strangeness), binge-viewing offered a whole new way to experience media. As a result, such binging transformed the piecemeal experience of watching episodic TV into an expansive feeling of traveling, of taking a trip, through a wormhole into a mind-altering respite from pandemic panic.
VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week
Wonders in the Suburbs
There’s a lot of talent in front of writer-director Jeanne Balibar’s camera—including herself—but her painfully leaden comedy backfires, as its jaundiced look at local politics is so heavyhanded that any laughs or insights are buried.
Wasted are Bulle Ogier, Mathieu Amalric and most of all Emmanuelle Beart, who is game as the newly-elected mayor who has difficulties implementing her campaign promises—which include things like Brioche Day—but the actress is defeated by Balibar’s forced whimsy and uncertain tone throughout.
Made in Italy
(Topic/First Look Media)
This frivolously entertaining series that goes behind the scenes at a Milan fashion magazine in the mid-'70s is a showcase for the charming Italian actress Greta Ferro, who plays Irene, a novice who has to juggle her newfound independence and likeminded colleagues with her dull boyfriend and old-fashioned father and mother.
This eight-part series balances Irene’s personal and professional lives with aplomb if a little too patly, and the glimpses of a changing world outside her window—strikes, terrorism, etc.—doesn’t really add or subtract much of anything. Good support comes from the redoubtable Margherita Buy as one of Irene’s superiors in the office.
4K Releases of the Week
Tim Burton’s cartoonish 1988 black comedy is remembered for Michael Keaton’s insane turn as a bio-exorcist for the afterlife; amazingly, Keaton is barely in a film whose 90 silly but funny minutes are taken up by a solid cast of comic actors and straight men and women—Catherine O’Hara, Geena Davis, Winona Ryder, Alec Baldwin, Jeffrey Jones, even Robert Goulet and Dick Cavett.
Of course, Burton’s splendidly skewered visuals are on vivid display, especially in ultra hi-def. Too bad the only extras are three episodes of an animated spinoff series.
This 1985 Steven Spielberg-produced adventure about a group of nerdy teens overcoming the bad guys in their small Oregon town has become a cult film yet remains loud, obnoxious, repetitive, juvenile and for the most part unfunny.
Richard Donner’s frantic direction can’t hide the gaps in Chris Columbus’ script and Spielberg’s own cutesy attitudinizing smothers the game young cast, including Corey Feldman, Josh Brolin, Kerri Green and Martha Plimpton. The film looks impressive in 4K; many extras include commentaries, deleted scenes, a vintage making-of featurette and the music video for Cyndi Lauper’s hit title song. Too bad the recent Zoom reunion of cast and creators wasn’t included at the last minute (but you can find it on YouTube).
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
Deep Blue Sea 3
I didn’t even know there was a Deep Blue Sea 2, but here’s another sequel about murderous sharks—what other kind are there?—this time genetically programmed to hunt, kill and eat, which of course puts in peril the workers at a research center in the middle of the ocean.
There are nice underwater sequences, but pitting the good guys vs. the bad guys above water is hopelessly contrived, and the climax is not the dynamic destruction this kind of movie thrives on. There’s a very good Blu-ray transfer and two making-of featurettes.
British soprano Sally Matthews makes a shimmering tragic heroine in Antonin Dvořák’s lovely fantasy opera Rusalka, given an elegant production by Melly Still at last summer’s Glyndebourne Festival in England; conductor Robin Ticciati leads the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Glyndebourne Chorus in a gorgeous reading of Dvořák’s score.
Handel’s classic Messiah—arranged by none other than Mozart—is called Der Messias in this performance from Salzburg, Austria (Mozart’s hometown), early this year. Music and singers are stellar, but the unfortunate staging is by Robert Wilson, whose austere minimalist visual aesthetic transforms the work into static dullness. Both discs have excellent hi-def audio and video; Rusalka has a short making-of.
DVD Release of the Week
Seal Team—Complete 3rd Season
The elite Bravo team is back for its latest high-stakes adventures, starting with a top-secret—and hugely dangerous—mission to Serbia before other deployments in North Yemen, Iran, Liberian, Indonesia and, lastly, Afghanistan.
For 20 episodes, the members of the team (led by Jason Hayes, played with stolid intensity by David Boreanz) must balance the difficulties of their chosen profession with the very real demands of loved ones back home, and if it’s all entirely predictable, the excitement of the action sequences compensate. Extras comprise four on-set featurettes.
CD Release of the Week
Walter Kaufmann—Chamber Works
Even among Eastern European composers whose careers—or their very lives—were destroyed by the Nazis, Walter Kaufmann and his story stand out: born in Czechoslovakia in 1907, Kaufmann moved to Bombay, India, once Hitler came to power and spent the war years there before ending up in Canada, where he conducted the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra; he finished his career in Bloomington at Indiana University’s School of Music, where his archive—most of the scores of his works are still uncataloged—is held.
Five world premiere recordings of his chamber works (all composed in India) paint a fascinating portrait of an eclectic and serious composer: hints of Eastern music are heard among the standard western classical works of string quartet (two), violin sonata, violin sonatina, and a striking septet for piano and strings. The ARC Ensemble plays impeccably.
VOD/Virtual Cinema Release of the Week
She Dies Tomorrow
Writer-director Amy Seimetz’s all-too-relevant horror film takes something from the everyday—a young woman believes she’s going to die within 24 hours, and her anxiety is contagious, as others are affected by her “virus”—and makes its concerns of existential, physical and mental dread caused by Covid-19 universal.
While not entirely successful (there are too many dead-end sequences or visual non-sequiturs), Seimetz’ film has hit on a powerfully metaphorical story, and her committed cast (Chris Messina, Josh Lucas, Jane Adams, and as the director’s alter ego—one assumes since the lead is named Amy—Kate Lyn Sheil) plays it to the hilt.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
Russian director Nikita Argunov’s imaginative dystopian fantasy owes more than a little bit to Inception, especially in its visualization of a fragmented and jumbled world based on dreams, called “Coma.” But Argunov’s story of an architect who awakes after a bad accident and joins a rebel group of fighters to rediscover reality is cleverly done and has matchless special effects.
The film (which can be watched in either the original Russian with subtitles or in an English dubbed version) looks vividly hyperrealistic on Blu; extras are several short featurettes.
Creator (and lead character voice) Olan Rogers’ animated sci-fi series makes for an unwieldy if witty and cock-eyed parody-cum-satire that works handily at times and falls flat at others. Both seasons—25 episodes in all—are pointing toward increasingly meager comic returns but the refreshing low-fi animation and an impeccable voice cast (Keith David, Fred Armisen, Conan O’Brien, for starters) make it watchable.
While the unevenness is closing in, enough originality remains on display to get a green-light for a third season. Hi-def video and audio are first-rate; extras are short featurettes on each episode.
Nora Ephron’s 1996 fable is lumbering and crude; I hoped a second viewing 24 years later would improve it, but unfortunately it remains probably Ephron’s worst film: that it took four writers to cobble this piece of leaden whimsy together was an obvious sign of trouble.
A game cast—William Hurt, Jean Stapleton, Andie McDowell, Bob Hoskins and John Travolta as the fallen angel—never transcends the trite material, and at times Ephron’s visuals are remindful of Steven Spielberg at his most trite and syrupy. The film looks fine in hi-def.
(Film Movement Classics)
This 1995 period piece is among Chinese master Zhang Yimou’s weakest efforts, a slow-moving and predictable gangster tale seen through the eyes of a boy who improbably becomes an assistant to a local henchman’s kept woman, a gorgeous courtesan who is also a popular nightclub singer-performer.
Despite the glamorous presence of Zhang’s then-muse, Gong Li—who gives a shockingly unsubtle and flat performance—and mesmerizing Oscar-nominated cinematography by Lü Yue, this strident drama vaporizes from memory as soon as it ends. The film does look superb in a new hi-def restoration; lone extra is a video essay about the film by scholar John Berra.
DVD Releases of the Week
The Destruction of Memory
This eye-opening 2016 documentary by director Tim Slade vividly shows how the wanton destruction of many sites of cultural and artistic heritage during wartime and beyond—from World War II and Bosnia to September 11 and Iraq—is something that’s within our power to stop if there is far-reaching buy-in and if we use modern technology to mitigate the potential losses.
As defined by the 1954 Hague Convention, genocide is usually considered against large groups of people, but the annihilation of libraries, museums and religious sites (as often as not today by non-state actors) demonstrate an ongoing attempt at erasing our very history. Intelligent talking heads and shocking footage of widespread damage provide a needed immediacy to this important subject.
NCIS—The 17th Season
NCIS: Los Angeles—The 11th Season
NCIS—New Orleans: The 6th Season
One of the most successful franchises ever on network television, the NCIS umbrella now encompasses three series—the original, set in Washington D.C.; the first spinoff, in Los Angeles; and the most recent, in New Orleans—each of which smartly uses its locale for its rigorous investigators to solve their cases.
The casts—led by Mark Harmon and Maria Bello (D.C.), LL Cool J and Chris O’Donnell (Los Angeles), and Scott Bakula and CCH Pounder (New Orleans)—make all three series enjoyable watches. These sets contain the entire current seasons (number of episodes: 20, D.C.; 22, L.A.; and 20, New Orleans; extras include featurettes and deleted/extended scenes.
Dame Ethyl Smyth—The Prison
Although Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) is now considered a major composer, she didn’t receive recognition from her contemporaries until late in her long career. A prime example of her mature works is this, her last major composition, written when she was 72. The bleakness of the subject matter notwithstanding, this is an ennobling and even thrilling symphony that, with its extensive parts for soprano, bass-baritone and chorus, is an oratorio or even one-act opera in all but name.
This exemplary recording features bass-baritone Dashon Burton as the Prisoner, soprano Sarah Bailey as His Soul and the Experiential Chorus, along with the Experiential Orchestra, all under the baton of conductor James Blachly.
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